This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The Cold War is history. For those growing up today, it is as distant in time as World War II was for those who came of age in the 1970s. In both cases, empires collapsed and maps were redrawn. Repugnant ideologies were laid bare and then laid to rest, though patches of nostalgia persist.
Surely the Cold War has been consigned to the textbooks as irrevocably as the Battle of the Bulge. The Berlin Wall is in pieces. The US president speaks of the abolition of nuclear weapons. The “common European home” from the Atlantic to the Urals—a conceit embraced by such odd bedfellows as De Gaulle and Gorbachev—beckons on the horizon, with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in place and the European Union creeping ever eastward. Tensions inevitably crop up, but they’re nothing worth exchanging ICBMs over.
What was once confrontation has turned into joint efforts to address global challenges: stabilizing the world economy, negotiating nuclear agreements with Iran, ending the war in Syria. A long article in The New Yorker on a multibillion-dollar nuclear fusion project being constructed in France reminds us that this quest for a sustainable replacement for fossil fuels began as a late Cold War agreement between Moscow and Washington. Impending environmental catastrophe is gradually uniting all sides in much the same way that Ronald Reagan once imagined that a Martian invasion would.
And then there’s Ukraine.
Just when you thought it was safe to get back into geopolitics, the Cold War has reared its ugly head once again. All your favorite characters have returned to the footlights—the iron-fisted Russian leader, the thundering American secretary of state, troops of multiple nations on alert and lots of cloak-and-dagger intrigue behind the scenes. And starring in the role of Prague 1968 is that new and untested actor: Crimea 2014. We can only hope that history is repeating itself as farce, not as a tragic tale told twice.
But there are some crucial differences in this restaging of the Cold War classic. The West has not been practicing containment of Russia so much as rollback of its influence by expanding NATO and the EU up to the country’s doorstep. And Moscow is not invoking some form of internationalism in support of ideological compatriots but nationalism pure and simple to safeguard its ethnic brethren. Moreover, this is a democratic age: Russian military intervention now comes with the Duma’s imprimatur. From the West, so far, has come much sound and fury, including the threat of economic sanctions and other penalties, but a military response remains off the table. There is still time to find a diplomatic solution that can preserve Ukrainian sovereignty, address the concerns of Russians on both sides of the border and revive that old vision of a common European home that treats Russia as a member, not a mobster.